September 25, 2007

Leo Tolstoy was never much of a fan of Anton Chekhov’s plays, although he liked his short stories. “Where is the drama?” he is said to have complained about “Uncle Vanya” to an actor after a performance. “It doesn’t go anywhere.”

Tolstoy may not have been much of a theater critic, but he was a successful playwright. His most acclaimed and controversial drama, “The Power of Darkness,” was banned by the government and is a sturdy and relentless work of moral outrage that moves toward its point with a single-minded determination. In other words, it goes somewhere, and there’s never any doubt where it’s headed.

The Mint Theater, a wonderful resource for lovers of theater history, has worked hard to update this 1886 play, using a gritty new translation by the director Martin Platt that tries to capture the spirit of coarse peasant life. And while it remains an intriguing curiosity, more interesting than good, it should be a must-see for students of Russian literature.

This deeply religious play follows a man who has lost his way: a philandering servant, Nikita (played by Mark Alhadeff as a somber brooder) conspires to kill his boss, marries the man’s wife and then sleeps with his own stepdaughter. And he’s just getting started. Tolstoy doesn’t search for psychological explanations for this behavior or bother to posit that all of us have the capacity for depravity. He seems instead to blame desperate poverty and greed.

Translation is always tricky, and while Mr. Platt doesn’t shy from the ugliness of these characters — he describes violence with a frankness that may shock some people — he is unable to escape the stilted, museum-piece feel of the play. Nikita’s noble father, Akim (Steve Brady), seems more like a collection of tics than a real character, and some of the exposition will remind audiences that the playwright was better known as a novelist.

Then again, there’s so much drama (adultery, drunkenness, poisoning) on the march toward redemption that there’s no time for Chekhovian discussion, character development or any ambiguity. Tolstoy just keeps increasing the stakes of the immorality until he reaches a climax with a powerful, unsparing scene in which Nikita, prodded by his mother, Matryona (played with great élan by Randy Danson), kills his newborn child.

It is a jolting moment, one that brings to mind Edward Bond’s baby-killing scene in “Saved,” written almost 80 years later. And despite its heavy-handedness, “The Power of Darkness” brings home how small acts of dishonesty can lead to outright evil. “One would be happiest not to sin,” says Matryona, “but then, what can you do?”